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A mannequin of Ichikawa Danjûrô XII in the role of Sukeroku, on display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.
  • Japanese: 歌舞伎 (kabuki)

Kabuki is, along with Noh and ningyô jôruri (aka bunraku), one of the three most prominent forms of traditional Japanese theater. Emerging around 1603 and developing into something very closely resembling its current form by 1800, kabuki remains strong today.

Unlike the Noh theatre, which grew out of ritual dances, and which is more symbolic, poetic, spiritual, and more serious in tone, focusing strongly on the strict performance of set forms (kata), kabuki is a more purely narrative form, focusing on telling an understandable story and providing the audience with an entertaining spectacle. While the Noh features a more reserved, minimalist aesthetic, and while the puppet theatre is by its very nature necessarily somewhat small-scale, kabuki makes use of a fuller arrangement of elaborate stage sets and multiple set changes; large casts; bold costumes and, sometimes, multiple costume changes; and an extensive musical ensemble (known as a hayashi) accompanied by an array of devices for various sound effects.

A colorful and bombastic style of theatre, kabuki makes extensive use of bold face makeup patterns called kumadori; special effects including trap doors and wirework, known as keren; dramatic poses called mie; a distinctive form of chanting; and bold, sometimes rather over-the-top costumes.

Kabuki was a core element of Edo period urban popular culture, intimately intertwined with ukiyo-e woodblock prints and popular publishing, and the culture of pleasure districts such as the Yoshiwara. Though some plays are set in the historical past, nearly all adapt the historical narrative to a contemporary Edo period setting, making kabuki an excellent source for experiencing and understanding Edo period material culture, albeit a trumped-up, over-the-top stage version of it.

Performance Style

Stage Design Features & Special Effects

The kabuki stage incorporates numerous distinctive special features, some more visible than others. Stage right and left in Anglophone parlance are referred to, respectively, as shimote ("lower hand") and kamite ("upper hand"); the geza or kuromisu, a latticed compartment behind which the musicians are located, sits on stage right (shimote).

The hanamichi (lit. "flower path"), a long, narrow walkway and one of the most visible stage features, extends from the stage (just left of stage right) through the audience, all the way to the back of the house. This path is used for dramatic entrances and exits, as well as for other dramatic elements, such as monologues. When a character stops on the hanamichi, to strike a dramatic pose or present a monologue, it is almost always 30% of the way down the hanamichi from the stage (70% of the way from the back of the theater), at a spot called shichi-san (lit. "seven-three"). A great many of the most famous and dramatic moments in kabuki occur at shichi-san. In addition, a trap door, called a suppon (lit. "snapping turtle") and small lift is installed at shichi-san, allowing characters to make an entrance or exit directly to or from shichi-san, rising up from below the stage (or descending down below from the house). A number of other similar trap doors (seri) and lifts are built into the main portion of the stage, allowing not only for entrances and exits, but also for characters and set pieces to be raised or lowered, creating a multi-tier stage set.

Another key feature of the kabuki stage is the mawari-butai, or rotating stage. A large circular section within the rectangular stage is able to rotate, allowing scene changes to be done quickly and dramatically, with one rotating out of view, and another, formerly upstage, set rotating into view. Though the revolving stage, lifts & trap doors, and other physical effects are today operated electronically, they would have traditionally been operated by a team of stagehands beneath the stage equipped with ropes and pulleys; in the case of the mawari butai, a group of stagehands would simply push on spokes attached to the mawari butai above them, slowly turning it.

Though today kabuki theaters are typically filled with Western-style seating, traditionally, the area today called "orchestra seating" would have been composed of masu-gata seating - a grid of square areas separated by a thin wooden rail elevated a short distance above the floor. Audience members would gather in these squares, bringing food and drink, and sitting on the floor, enjoying a somewhat picnic-like atmosphere. Expensive box seats to either side of the "house" (audience area), known as sajiki, could go for as much as eighteen times the price of the kiriotoshi seats directly in front of the stage; viewers who didn't mind viewing the whole production from behind the stage, seeing chiefly just the backs of the actors, could have even cheaper seats in an area known as the rakan dai.[1] Productions went on all day, typically including one jidaimono, and one sewamono, within which the audience could expect to see at least one shosagoto dance number. Audience members would come and go, eating, drinking, chatting, and even commenting out loud about the play (including shouting at the performers). It is easy to imagine how the practice of kakegoe, shouting one's excitement or appreciation of the appearance of a favorite actor or favorite dramatic moment, would have developed in such a laid-back atmosphere.

The distinctive black, green, and orange kabuki stage curtain, seen here at Kabuki-za in 2008.

The distinctive green, black, and orange striped kabuki curtain still seen today is said to have originated when Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu donated a ship's sail to the Nakamura-za (one of the three licensed theaters in Edo) as a reward for service, the pattern being adopted by other theaters in the Meiji period.[2] This standard design was used at the Ichimura-za throughout much of the Edo period.[3]

Traditionally, in the 18th-19th centuries, kabuki theaters were two- or three-story buildings, with multiple floors of dressing rooms and reception rooms. An attached teahouse, called a shibai jaya, provided a space for theatergoers to eat, drink, and talk before, after, and during performances, as well as to make reservations for performances, and sometimes to meet with actors. The main floor of seating in front of the stage was divided up into boxes, called masugata seats, where people gathered in groups, eating, drinking, and cavorting while watching the play. It was only in the Meiji period that Western-style row seats were introduced. Second- or third-story seating often included bamboo blinds or screens, to allow high-ranking samurai and other elites to watch the performances without being seen themselves. A drum tower (yagura) atop the theater sounded out drumbeats announcing days when there would be a performance. Performances typically went on during the day, and torches were used to light the stage at night; over the course of the Edo period, the shogunate repeatedly attempted to mandate that performances end before nightfall, both for reasons of public morality, and because of the danger of fire, but they also repeatedly relented or eased up on such regulations. Many of these features of the theater architecture have been revived, or maintained, in theaters such as the Kabuki-za in Tokyo, which for example, maintains a yagura and an attached teahouse; some of these other features, such as the box seats, can perhaps be seen today only at the Kanamaru-za in Kotohira, Kagawa prefecture, the oldest kabuki theater still in operation today.

Costumes & Makeup

A wig for a courtesan role such as, made from yak hair, with tortoiseshell ornaments, and styled in the "Agemaki musubi" style

Costumes, makeup,

Wigs built around a copper wire skeleton are the traditional standard. They are often made from human hair, with yak hair used for topknots.[4]

Actors wear a skull cap called a habutae under their wigs. Those worn by onnagata (actors playing female roles) are purple in color, and are known as murasaki bôshi (lit. "purple hat"). Though these purple cloths are today invisible under the wigs, kabuki actors were for much of the Edo period forbidden from hiding their shaved pates (the mark that they were, in fact, adult men and not women) under a wig, and were, further, subject to periodic inspections to make sure their hair was maintained at within a legal length; the use of a cloth to cover the bald area was permitted however, and it became standard that a purple or persimmon-dyed cloth be used.

Aspects of Performance

dance, mie

Kakegoe (yago)

Wagoto vs aragoto


The music in kabuki is performed live, by shamisen players and an ensemble known as the hayashi. There are typically an equal number of shamisen players and singers. The onstage portion of the hayashi, known as the debayashi, has the same composition as the Noh hayashi; it consists of four or more performers of flute, kotsuzumi, ôtsuzumi, and shimedaiko. The flutist, however, plays not only the nôkan (Noh flute), but also the shinobue and possibly other wind instruments as necessary.

The shamisen players, along with the debayashi performers, are typically located in a compartment at stage right, behind a screen, called a geza or kuromisu, while the remainder of the hayashi, including those performing sound effects such as bird and insect sounds, perform off-stage.

Though not strictly considered musical instruments, a pair of clappers, called alternatively ki or tsuke, located to the right of the stage, play an important role in emphasizing dramatic poses (mie), sword strikes, and other moments, as well as marking the beginning and ending of acts, beating out a dramatic rhythm as the curtain opens or closes.

At the core of kabuki music are song and shamisen, performed in a variety of styles or genres, nagauta chief among them, each of which incorporates both. Within a single play, act, or even scene, a series of different genres of song+shamisen are employed as needed to musically accompany dance pieces, narrative sections, sections borrowing from the puppet theater, etc. Nagauta, a form that evolved within the kabuki theater, and which along with kouta and jiuta was quite common within the pleasure quarters as well, is perhaps the most common and dominant style, though the tokiwazu-bushi, kiyomoto-bushi, and gidayû-bushi styles, born out of the puppet theater, dance traditions, and storytelling traditions, are also used extensively.

The songs sung & played on the shamisen are often "theme music" of a sort, relating to a certain character or place. In the play Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, for example, the song "Ise Ondo" is not only played during a climactic dance scene where the song is diegetic, and being danced to, but it is also played, in different variations, throughout the play at points where it is used to highlight the identity of the setting as Ise. Certain characters might have their own theme songs that are played when they make their entrance or exit, or otherwise dominate the scene, such as during a dramatic monologue. As much of Japanese poetry and music is strongly tied to seasonal themes, songs can also be used to indicate or suggest the season. Some pieces are purely instrumental, or aikata[5], while others incorporate vocal song. Often, an instrumental or sung piece will consist of only a brief pattern known as meriyasu (lit. "stretchy material"), or brief excerpt of a longer piece, repeated or stretched out as necessary to suit the length and mood of a scene. All in all, there are perhaps more than 800 pieces in the traditional kabuki shamisen repertoire, if one includes those from different genres, regional variations (e.g. Edo vs Kamigata), and for different situations and circumstances (e.g. seasons, weather, settings).[6]

Like the actors, kabuki musicians make changes and shifts in the musical scheme for each production. Though traditional associations (e.g. the use of a given song for a given scene) are of great importance, there is a degree of flexibility, as there is in the acting, and so precisely which pieces must be played for precisely each part of the play is not set in stone. A notebook known as a tsukechô is employed by the musicians to record a rough sketch of which pieces will be played on which cues, for that day's, or that month's, version of the production.

In addition to the shamisen, the ensemble also includes a variety of drums, including ôtsuzumi, kotsuzumi, shime-daiko, and ô-daiko, which not only play alongside the shamisen, but are also used for announcements, and for sound effects. Prior to a show beginning, traditionally, a large taiko (drum) placed in a drum tower (yagura) above the theater would be played, in a pattern known as ichiban-daiko, to announce that a show was going to be taking place. Once the lead actor had entered the theater and begun his preparations (i.e. putting on makeup, getting dressed), the drum pattern would shift to niban daiko, indicating to passersby and to the audience that the show would be starting soon. During the show, drums could be used in a variety of ways to create sound effects to help set the scene, such as waves (for a seaside or shipboard scene), wind, rain, or snow. To take one example, even though snow in reality falls silently, heavy drumbeats, hit at a very slow tempo, set the mood of the cold and dark night, and of the weight of the snow as it rests on tree branches and rooftops.

The hayashi is rounded out by flutes, bells, gongs, and other struck or rung instruments known as narimono[7]. These, too, accompany the shamisen and drums in performing songs during a play, but can also be used for sound effects. A variety of objects designed specifically for sound effects are employed in kabuki, including a set of clappers used specifically for the clip-clop of a horse, and a tiny reed instrument which, when blown in one manner produces surprisingly realistic bird tweets or chirps, and when used in a different manner, produces the sound of crickets or the buzz of summer cicadas. Fans with beads tied onto them were shaken to produce the sound of rain, while red beans poured back and forth in a long basket (like a rainstick) were used for the sound of waves on the ocean.[8] Stories call for a wide variety of sound effects, depending on the settings and events, and the hayashi is prepared to produce more or less any sound necessary, some more literal (such as a Buddhist temple bell, or summer cicadas), and some more stylized and distinctive to kabuki (such as the example of the sound of snow).

Calendar and Events

The kabuki calendar moved in tune with the seasons, with particular plays or categories of plays, as well as annual events, tied to particular times of year.

At the beginning of each year, each theater held kaomise ("face-showing") performances, which showed off the company (often with some new actors, i.e. new faces, beginning that year) to audiences. These programs included regular plays, but often began with beginning-of-the-year announcements by the theater manager or the head of the acting troupe (zagashira), introductions by or of the new actors, and auspicious dances such as Okina to open the new theater season. These were events held onstage for audiences, but they were also often preceded by private ceremonies held by the actors, called yorizome, in which they met within the theater or the attached teahouse, and then also on the street outside, to formally greet the theater managers. The formal stage play program of a kaomise performance then followed, beginning with a period piece (jidaimono), followed by a domestic piece (sewamono) ostensibly continuing the story of the period piece.[9]

These and other auspicious occasions often involve the entire troupe clapping their hands in a particular pattern, in unison. Such a hand-clapping ceremony was also held, for example, during the closing ceremonies of the post-war Kabuki-za, before it was closed in 2010 (to be rebuilt and reopened in 2013).


Kabuki plays are divided, for the most part, into two categories:

  • Jidaimono[10] (lit. "period thing") are period plays, either set in the past, or referencing a traditional or historical narrative but altering it by setting it in the present (in the Edo period). These plays tend to be more bombastic, colorful, and action-packed, featuring bold characters and samurai heroes and villains. Some of the most famous jidaimono include Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, Kanadehon Chûshingura, and Kokusen'ya kassen ("The Battles of Coxinga").
  • Sewamono, most often called "contemporary plays," by contrast, were set in the Edo period and focused more closely on commoner characters. These plays tend to be more reserved in their aesthetics, with more dialogue and less fighting scenes or special effects, though the content of the narrative is often more deeply, emotionally, dramatic. Some of the most famous sewamono are Sonezaki Shinjû ("Love Suicides at Sonezaki") and Kuruwa Bunsho.

There are some plays which do not cleanly fall into either of these categories, while many others belong to one or more of the many named sub-categories of kabuki plays.

Members of the Ichikawa family in roles from nine of the Kabuki Jûhachiban, a group of 18 plays selected by Ichikawa Danjûrô VII.


A statue of Izumo no Okuni at Shijô-Kawaramachi in Kyoto


The origins of kabuki are typically attributed to a woman known as Izumo no Okuni, whose troupe's performances, on temporary stages set up in the Kawaramachi dry riverbed of the Kamo River in Kyoto, beginning in 1603, are said to have been the very first "kabuki" performances. However, some scholars point out that these performances, often referred to today as "Okuni kabuki," were likely not radically different from those performed by other women's groups at the time, and drew heavily upon recent performance trends of the Azuchi-Momoyama period.[11] These earliest "kabuki" performances consisted chiefly of showy dances, with a minimum of plot or characterization, and were much more similar to today's taishû engeki than the more fully staged and heavily narrative form that kabuki has since evolved into. The musical accompaniment for Okuni kabuki is believed to have consisted of the standard Noh ensemble - chiefly flutes and drums - with only a few other instruments, such as the shinobue flute and surigane hand-gong added in; kouta was the dominant style of music. The shamisen would not become standard until around 1650, bringing with it a dramatic shift in kabuki music; it may have been used prior to that time, but it has also been suggested that Okuni kabuki may have only used the shamisen as a stage prop, rather than as an instrument incorporated into the musical accompaniment.[12]

The word "kabuki" (歌舞伎) is today written with three characters meaning song (歌), dance (舞), and technique or skill (伎). However, the name of the art form is said to derive from, or be related to, the term kabukimono (傾奇者), which referred to eccentric types seen on the streets of Kyoto and Edo around that time, who dressed and behaved unusually, and in general were described as leaning (傾) towards the bizarre and unconventional (奇). Many could likely be validly characterized as ruffians or street toughs; many were likely also involved in gambling or other unsavory or even violent activities. Okuni herself is said to have been a kabukimono, along with Nagoya Sansaburô, a figure often said to have been Okuni's onstage partner and off-stage lover, and worthy of credit as co-founder of kabuki theater, but who might in reality have never met Okuni, or might not even have existed at all. The riverbeds were very much lower-class areas, filled with people and activities the authorities considered undesirables. At least in the earliest days of kabuki, if not once formal theater buildings were erected, violence often erupted among the crowds, as one audience member accidentally brushed up against another's scabbard, or stepped on someone's foot. These violent clashes contributed to Tokugawa Ieyasu's decision to ban kabuki from his castle-town of Sunpu as early as 1608 (this also indicates that kabuki had spread fairly quickly, as far as Sunpu in only five years). Still, even in these early years, kabuki was already popular not only among commoners, but among samurai and courtiers as well, to such an extent that it is said to have had some impact on court ladies' fashions or behavior.

The so-called onna kabuki ("women kabuki") performances also served as advertising for the young men and women themselves, as prostitutes. In the earliest years of kabuki in Edo, many of the troupes and performances were directed by women, specifically courtesans of the Yoshiwara.[13] Skits often had brothels as the settings, and involved lewd dialogue and movements; very often, the young men and women of the troupe each played the opposite gender, enhancing the humor of the performances. As a result of their association with prostitution, in 1629, the Tokugawa shogunate banned women from appearing onstage. This came after an incident the previous year in which a performance by a kabuki dancer named Azuma was believed to have caused a fight, leading to all female kabuki performers, dancers, and jôruri chanters being banned. The 1629 edict is the standard date cited as marking the ban on women's kabuki, though in fact the fact that the ban was reissued several times over the course of the 1630s-40s suggests that women continued to appear onstage, in violation of the ban, until at least 1647. Professional kabuki[14] remains a male-only theater form today.

Onna kabuki was thus replaced by so-called wakashû kabuki ("young men kabuki"), which had been active since at least 1612, and in which beautiful young men played all the roles. This marked the beginnings of the tradition of the onnagata, though wakashû kabuki contained even less narrative content than onna kabuki, consisting more fully of dance pieces. Koto was sometimes incorporated into the musical ensembles in wakashû kabuki, the only string instrument used in Japanese theater prior to the introduction of the shamisen. Kouta remained the dominant style of music, nagauta having not yet replaced it.

The young men in wakashû kabuki, however, like their female predecessors, performed as prostitutes, and it was not long before wakashû kabuki came to an end as well, due to the same shogunate concerns about public propriety and morality. In 1642, the shogunate banned actors from dressing as women onstage, but in response to widespread popular opposition, the authorities relented two years later, allowing men to once again portray women, but only so long as it was made clear that they were, in fact, males. In 1664, this was reinforced by a ban on men using wigs to hide their shaved pates; however, cloths or scarves were allowed to be used to cover it, and it soon became standard and traditional for a purple or persimmon-dyed cloth to be used for that purpose. The use of wigs with a copper-wire skeleton is said to date from this time. Actors were further forbidden in 1648 from engaging in homosexual activities, though subsequent reissuings of this ban would seem to indicate that it was not too effective.

At some point in the 17th century, the center of gravity of kabuki shifted from Kyoto (Kamigata) to Edo, and most edicts regarding kabuki issued by the shogunate were only applied directly in Edo, with the shogunate authorities in Kyoto and Osaka often implementing policies only many months later, or not at all.

Wakashû kabuki was followed by yarô kabuki in 1652, when laws were changed again, now allowing only older men to perform onstage. This eliminated the element of prostitution from kabuki, and marks the beginning of kabuki's shift towards becoming a more purely theatrical form. Younger actors were permitted back onto the stage, however, the following year, so long as they shaved their heads so as to appear as adult men.[15]

Despite the shogunate's concerns about kabuki as a negative moral influence, the shogunate never sought to ban kabuki entirely, seeing it, like prostitution, as a necessary evil and believing that an outright ban would only bring further trouble. Not only would a ban run the risk of inspiring protest or even riots, but banning it only in Edo would lead to numerous wealthy patrons, commercial businesses, and the like leaving the city and weakening its economy. As a result, the authorities merely aimed to control kabuki, restricting it to particular areas of the city, and to particular style and content. At times, the shogunate even patronized the art form. Troupes performed at Edo castle four times in 1650-1651. Some daimyô are also known to have patronized the art, though in sharp contrast to Noh, kabuki would continue to always be primarily a commoner/popular art.

The restriction of the theaters in Edo to only designated areas of the city began in 1661, in the aftermath of the 1657 Meireki Fire, which leveled much of the city, thus creating an opportunity for district reorganization. At that time, kabuki theaters were officially restricted to the neighborhoods of Sakai-chô and Fukiya-chô to the northeast of Nihonbashi, and to Kobiki-chô, to the south of Kyôbashi, while the licensed prostitution quarters, destroyed in the fire, were rebuilt as the Shin-Yoshiwara, or "New Yoshiwara," further out from the city center. The Nakamura-za made its home in Sakai-chô, the Ichimura-za in Fukiya-chô, and the Morita-za in Kobiki-chô,[9] until all were relocated to Saruwaka-chô in 1841. Meanwhile, in Kyoto, theatres were restricted to the left bank of Shijô-Kawaramachi; and then in 1670, to the east bank. In Osaka, they were restricted to the Dôtonbori area.[15] Kabuki actors were also required to live within these districts.[16] The rebuilding of the theaters in the designated districts at this time marks the beginning of kabuki being housed in more substantial buildings; prior to this, kabuki theaters more closely resembled Noh stages, in which the stage alone stands as a separate structure, with its own roof. The audience was enclosed within simple bamboo fencing, and protected from precipitation by simple bamboo blinds hung overhead. The new buildings, by contrast, by 1700, came to be multi-story structures, with often three levels of box seats, three levels of dressing rooms, and a lavish attached teahouse (shibai jaya).

Beginning in 1661 with the establishment of more permanent theater buildings within designated districts, the number of theaters that could operate legally in the city was limited to four large theaters (ôshibai) and eight small ones (koshibai); Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines also occasionally staged performances, with the authorization of the machi bugyô. In Kyoto, the large theaters were gradually reduced to three, and in Osaka, four. In conjunction with this, of course, unlicensed theaters and unauthorized performances were, nominally at least, strictly forbidden (with certain exceptions, e.g. for performances at certain festivals).

The actors themselves, like prostitutes, were considered a separate social category or sub-class, outside of the four-class schema of samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants. They were restricted to the theatre districts, and forbidden from living alongside non-actors. It has been suggested that these restrictions were put into place chiefly in order to prevent actors from performing at the private residences of wealthy merchants or samurai. Of course, as with so many of the other regulations, these were not strictly observed, and actors did perform at private parties. Actors were further forbidden from going out disguised as normal townsmen, and normal townsmen forbidden from dressing as actors or performing entertainments; as with many social policies of the Tokugawa era, responsibility for enforcement was placed chiefly in the hands of goningumi and other local neighborhood- and district-based self-regulatory systems. It has also been suggested that part of the reason that actors, prostitutes, and other entertainers were separated out from the four-class structure was because their work, being intangible, was more difficult to tax; thus, as people producing little to no taxable or directly financially measurable contributions to society, they were considered a sort of outcaste.

Edicts issued by the shogunate chiefly included attempts to restrict or eliminate prostitution (including same-sex relations) among those associated with the theaters, sumptuary regulations aimed at keeping the costumes, architecture, and other material aspects of the theaters within the boundaries of what was appropriate for commoners, and bans on certain political content. Sumptuary laws issued in the 1630s-60s attempted to ban kabuki actors and ningyô jôruri puppets from wearing sumptuous fabrics onstage; however, by the late 1660s, the authorities began to concede ground on this.[17] As for the matter of policing content, as with policies regarding the content of ukiyo-e prints, any major samurai figures or events from roughly the 1570s onwards were forbidden from being portrayed, as were current events whether political or popular in nature. Nevertheless, plays based on recent scandals (love suicides, revenge stories, etc.), and plays commenting on contemporary politics but faintly disguised by setting them in the historical or literary past, were among the most common and popular. Kabuki was tolerated as a commoner theatre, but it was strongly discouraged that samurai, especially high-ranking lords, should attend; they regularly did, however. There is little evidence that samurai were ever arrested for merely attending the theatre, though there were incidents in which samurai were arrested and occasionally even disenfeoffed for being involved in fights at the theatre, or for performing.[18] Theaters constructed temporary screens to shield elites from being seen by the hoi polloi, and made sure they could be put up and taken down quite quickly, in order to avoid enforcement of a series of bans on such screens issued repeatedly beginning in 1646. Many lower-ranking samurai, though also forbidden from going to the kabuki theaters, did so relatively openly, purchasing box seats often without screens. Elite ladies, meanwhile, very often did not go into the theaters, but merely peeked from within their palanquins in through the entrance of the theater; this was a common enough practice that edicts were issued specifically banning it. Even so, despite these various divisions, the kabuki theatre was nevertheless one of the chief places in the city where people of nearly all hierarchical statuses - from daimyô down to the lowest urban laborer who could afford a ticket - mingled, or at least occupied the same building, to a greater extent than almost anywhere else in the city.[19]


The Genroku period (1688-1704) is generally cited as marking the beginning of kabuki's development into its mature form. While fans would continue to admire actors for their physical features (e.g. beauty, handsomeness, grace) down through the present day, it was in Genroku that acting really began to overtake sexiness as a key characteristic of the art form; in other words, it was in this period that kabuki can really be said to have transformed from a dance revue showing off the actors' physical bodies, into a plot-based, character-based theatre form, albeit still with considerable elements of showing off the actors' skills and abilities.

The period saw numerous innovations by some of the most famous and influential figures in early kabuki history, including playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and actor Sakata Tôjûrô I who pioneered the softer wagoto style of acting which later grew to form the core of Kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) kabuki. Yoshizawa Ayame I is celebrated as a pioneering onnagata, and Ichikawa Danjûrô I created the bold aragoto style of acting which would later come to form the core of the aesthetics of Edo kabuki. Ichikawa Danjûrô remains the most prestigious name in kabuki today, and the innovations of the first Danjûrô set the stage for the bold makeup, costumes, mie poses, and movements that have come to so define kabuki. Danjûrô is also, perhaps erroneously, credited with the invention of the mawari butai; the hanamichi, meanwhile, is believed to have become a standard feature by 1677, adopted from the hashigakari of the Noh stage.

Numerous features of kabuki can thus trace their origins to the Genroku period, as can some of the most famous and prominent plays in the repertoire, such as Shibaraku. By this time, narrative had taken a more central role in kabuki, and plays began to be more fully based around a consistent plot, and dramatic characters, though dance remained strong as well. Kabuki dance by this time had shifted away from the abstract and formal mai dance form of Noh, and away from the folk odori traditions,[20] and had embraced the furi style of more mimetic dance, in which dancers embody a character, and perform dance motions which resemble or represent the actions of a narrative. Even as plays began to incorporate more dialogue and plot elements, the narrative dance-drama form known as shosagoto coalesced and gathered strength as well.

18th-19th centuries

Licensed theatre system, censorship,

The 1740s saw the debut of three lengthy jidaimono, each one year after the other, which remain today among the most famous and most popular in the entire kabuki repertoire. Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (1746), Yoshitsune senbon zakura (1748), and Kanadehon Chûshingura (1748) represent, perhaps, the ultimate culmination of the shift, beginning in or before Genroku, towards increasingly complex and coherent plots, with deep and complex characters, scripts, extensive stage sets, and convincing, emotional, if stylized, acting.

Meanwhile, by this time the phenomenon of kabuki actors' celebrity was in full force. Perhaps not too dissimilarly from today, celebrity actors were looked to for the latest fashions, and everyday people often wore colors, caps, or ways of tying their obi (belt) associated with popular actors.[21]

While kabuki continued to be performed chiefly only at the few licensed theaters in each city, small theaters called yose sprang up over the course of the 18th century, throughout Edo and other cities, hosting performances of a wide variety of other arts, including rakugo, jôruri chanting, stage magic, and shadowplay shows.[22]

The theatre district, located near the city's commercial center at Nihonbashi, was destroyed in a fire in 1841. Following this, the authorities obliged the theaters to rebuild in Saruwaka-chô, a neighborhood on the northeastern edges of the city, near Asakusa (and the Buddhist temple of Sensô-ji), and the Yoshiwara.[23] Saruwaka-chô is said to have been named after Saruwaka Kanzaburô, predecessor or progenitor of the Edo actor. The Nakamura-za was placed in Saruwaka-chô 1-chôme (the "first" section of the district), the Ichimura-za in 2-chôme, and the Kawarazaki-za (and later, the Morita-za) in 3-chôme.[24]

Meiji through Wartime



Kabuki began to shift at the beginning of the 20th century from all-day programs to shorter separate afternoon and evening programs showing choice selections from a number of different plays. This remains the standard program today at Kabuki-za and the other major kabuki theaters across the country, though revivals of full-length plays are occasionally performed; the Tokyo National Theatre, established in 1965, by contrast, makes a policy of hosting performances of full-length plays, as part of a philosophy of cultural preservation and historical authenticity.

While still strongly dedicated to tradition as it always has been, kabuki today does not adhere exclusively to a traditional repertoire. Most plays composed in the late 19th and early 20th century and incorporating too much Western/modern influence, especially those with very modern settings and plots, and most especially those born out of the militarist & ultranationalist ideologies of the 1920s-40s, have been excised from the repertoire. However, new plays do continue to be written and performed, albeit rarely, and always with much effort paid to be true to the traditional aesthetics and style of kabuki. Ukare shinjû, a parody of the love suicides genre, for example, was pioneered by Nakamura Kanzaburô XVIII (then Kankurô V) in 1997,[25] but even an avid kabuki fan might have difficulty noticing elements that would set it apart as definitively non-traditional, or of a more modern authorship. It has been added into the repertoire, and has been performed several times since its debut, but even in 2008, more than ten years after the play was added to the repertoire, it was preceded by Kanzaburô himself appearing before the audience and humbly asking their forgiveness for not performing something more traditional, and asking their consideration of this new piece.

The tradition of making contemporary references and jokes, and otherwise slightly altering plays in each incarnation (production) of them, also continues to this day. Actors regularly incorporate references to contemporary gags or jokes into traditional plays, and have been known to go as far as to substitute men in NYPD uniforms for the shogun's lawmen in a traditional jidaimono play; this is seen not as a break with tradition, but as a continuation of the long tradition of keeping plays flexible and current, of improvisation and having fun with the canon, and preventing it from becoming too staid and formulaic.

post-war, today, rebuilding of Kabuki-za


  • Alison McQueen Tokita, "Music in kabuki: more than meets the eye." The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. pp229-260.
  • Donald Shively, "Bakufu Versus Kabuki," in Samuel Leiter (ed.), A Kabuki Reader, M.E. Sharpe (2002), 33-59.
  1. Timothy Clark, "Edo Kabuki in the 1780s," The Actor's Image, Art Institute of Chicago (1994), 34.
  2. Lisa Ann M. Omoto and Kathy Welch, "Kabuki Spectacle," in 101 Years of Kabuki in Hawai'i, University of Hawaii (1994), 50.
  3. Plaque at former site of the Ichimura-za, Asakusa 6-18-13.[1]
  4. Gallery labels, Kabuki-za.[2]
  5. A term deriving from the naniwa-bushi storytelling traditions, referring to the shamisen accompanist. In kabuki, singers accompany themselves on shamisen. "Aikata." Hatena Keyword はてなキーワード.
  6. McQueen Tokita. p232.
  7. 鳴り物, lit. "things that ring", often used interchangeably with the word hayashi, to refer to the entire ensemble outside of the shamisen players.
  8. Gallery labels, Kabukiza Gallery.[3][4]
  9. 9.0 9.1 Timothy Clark, "Edo Kabuki in the 1780s," The Actor's Image, Art Institute of Chicago (1994), 27, 36-38.
  10. Note the relation to the term jidaigeki (lit. "period play") used to refer to "period" films, especially samurai films.
  11. McQueen Tokita. p230.
  12. Tsubaki, 304-305.
  13. Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 264.
  14. Jishibai rural/regional amateur performances, as well as those performed by universities and other amateur contexts, often feature both men and women on-stage; in addition, there are a limited number of women-only troupes officially endorsed by the Ichikawa family or other segments of the professional kabuki establishment.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Ryoko Matsuba, "Fleurs du mal: Onnagata (Female-role Specialists) and Nanshoku (Male-Male Sex) in Edo-Period Kabuki," in Joshua Mostow and Asato Ikeda (eds.), A Third Gender, Royal Ontario Museum (2016), 42.
  16. Ikegami, 270.
  17. Actors were also forbidden from riding in palanquins or on horseback, though this was often violated, and their swords could be painted wood, but could not be made of metal, nor covered in metal foil to give the impression of being a real blade.
  18. The diary of Asahi Shigeaki indicates gives an example of two Owari han retainers who were disenfeoffed in 1686 after it was found out they were performing a traveling puppet show. Luke Roberts, "A Transgressive Life: the Diary of a Genroku Samurai," Early Modern Japan 5:2 (1995), 27.
  19. Clark, 34.
  20. Mai dances can be quite slow, and center on walking in a circle or square, and performing highly formalized, abstract movements; odori are considerably more energetic dances, generally performed in groups, either in a circle, or in a line. Tokita. p244.
  21. Ikegami, 281.
  22. Ikegami, 316.
  23. Christine Guth, Art of Edo Japan, Yale University Press (1996), 94.
  24. Monument at former site of the Morita-za, at Asakusa 6-26-11.[5]
  25. Kabukiza hyaku-ni-jû-nen shigatsu dai-kabuki 歌舞伎座百二十年四月大歌舞伎. Tokyo: Shôchiku. April 2008. p75.

See also

  • Nihon buyô - lit. "Japanese dance"; the most prominent form of traditional Japanese dance today, based closely upon kabuki dance
  • Jishibai - regional amateur kabuki productions, performed in most cases only one day, or one week, annually, as part of annual local festivals
  • Glossary of performance terms